I Am Ingush

elizaveta_alexandrova-zorinaElizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina. Courtesy of Ponedelnik

I Am Ingush
Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina
Radio Svoboda
September 24, 2019

In Russia, there is a political crackdown in full swing that almost no one talks about—not because it is happening somewhere other than Moscow, but because it is happening in the North Caucasus. Popular protests in Ingushetia forced Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the head of the republic to resign, triggered a wave of criminal prosecutions, and still have the republic agitated. In the rest of Russia, people say it is a Caucasian affair, something in which they should avoid getting involved. And yet many Ingush believe the events in Magas in spring 2019 were the starting point for all the recent protest campaigns, from Shiyes to Moscow. At the very least, the protests in Ingushetia were the largest in Russia since the fair elections rallies on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue in 2011–2012.

The arrests and prosecution of protesters in Moscow have been dubbed a “new” Bolotnaya Square case. Russian and international journalists alike have written a great deal about the case, and each of the defendants has been lavished with attention by human rights defenders. There are long queues of people waiting to take turns in solo pickets, and flash mobs are held in solidarity with Konstantin Kotov. Actors have rallied around Pavel Ustinov, while teachers produced an appeal in support of Yegor Zhukov. The clergy, the Union of Cinematographers, and PEN Moscow have sent official letters on behalf of the defendants, while Stephen Fry, Herta Müller, and a whole host of foreign politicians and cultural figures signed an open letter. Only Mediazona and OVD Info have been covering the events in Ingushetia, however, while the only aspect of the protests there and the fallout from them that has been discussed on the Runet is the fact that certain Ingush police officers went over to the protesters and have subsequently been criminally prosecuted for their actions.

In point of fact, Ingushetia’s version of the Bolotnaya Square case is quite as massive as the real thing. Criminal charges have been filed against thirty-three people, most of whom have been in remand prison for many months. Another forty people are under investigation. The investigators reportedly have an extended list of 150 people they would like to charge: Ingushetia is a small place, and it is hard to keep such things secret for long. We should also add to this catalog a reporter who covered the protests. Apparently, the police planted heroin on him and then tortured him to try and force him to testify.

Before the arrests kicked off, 317 people were convicted under the administrative law on “unauthorized” protest rallies and fined between 10,000 and 20,000 rubles [approx. 150 to 300 dollars]. That is a lot of money for people in Ingushetia, where a quarter of the able-bodied population earns less than 10,000 rubles a month.

Around a hundred grassroots activists have been harassed—police have searched their homes, interrogated them, and detained them—and some have lost their jobs. Even the new law about “fake” news has been employed: Murad Daskiyev, an Ingush elder, was fined for the fact that, in his appeal to Ingush lawmakers, he wrote about the possible elimination of the republic due to another redrawing of its borders with neighboring republics, despite the fact the many people there actually do see the constant “pruning” of Ingushetia as just that: an attempt to get rid of Ingushetia.

Ingush activists told me it was strange I had come. They said no one in Moscow was interested in what was happening in Ingushetia. As they put it, people in Moscow think the “wogs” were trying to divvy something up, but the conflict does not concern them. In their coverage of the protests in Magas, national Russian media managed to shift the emphasis from anger at the authorities to the supposedly ethnic conflict between Chechens and Ingush. This can not just be put down to the skill of the propagandists.

In August, during the so-called indefinite picket—which began as a way to support demands to release the imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, but later encompassed the Crimean Tatars, historian Yuri Dmitriev, the New Greatness case, the Network case, and the Moscow case—I stood holding a placard decrying the crackdown in Ingushetia. A poster calling for a one-to-one prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine usually elicited a positive reaction from passersby, while a placard that read “No to the war with Ukraine!” generated lots of arguments. When they saw me holding up placards about the Crimean Tatars and the Ukrainian sailors, people were sometimes ready to attack. But the placard about Ingushetia could just as well have been invisible. Only once did some policemen lazily inquire about what was happening in Ingushetia because they didn’t know. And one passerby, a woman, asked her husband what was written on my placard.

“Something about Ingushetia,” he replied.

“Oh, Ingushetia,” she said.

On the contrary, people in Ingushetia follow the news from Moscow closely. They post articles and photographs on social media and discuss the arrests of protesters. I was constantly asked about what was happening in Moscow and what would happen to the protesters arrested there on criminal charges. I was ashamed of the fact I was surprised by their attention to the Moscow case.

In Moscow, you strike up the most pleasant acquaintances in paddy wagons and police stations during protest rallies because the most interesting, best-educated, and most concerned people end up there. It’s the same way in Ingushetia: the republic’s finest people are behind bars and on the lists of police investigators.

Six people, whom the authorities have identified as “leaders” of the protests, have been charged under an article of the Russian criminal code that stipulates a maximum sentence of ten years in prison for “organizing violence that threatens the life or health of public officials in the performance of their duties.” Since they have no criminal records, they could be sentenced to a “mere” five or six years in prison.

Barakh Chemurziyev worked for ten years in the department of economics at the University of Economics and Finance in St. Petersburg. He researched corruption and embezzlement of government funds by officials in the Yevkurov administration. Chair of the Ingush branch of the Red Cross, Musa Masalgov has devoted thirty years of his life to charity work. Malsag Uzhakhov, 67, is chair of the Council of Teips of the Ingush People, while Ahmed Barakhoyev, 65, is an Ingush elder and member of the Ingush National Unity Committee. Ismail Nalgiyev, a blogger and grassroots activists, held solo pickets in solidarity with his arrested countrymen, later joining their ranks himself. Zarifa Sautiyeva is a researcher and deputy director of Memorial, a museum complex dealing with the deportation of the Ingush in 1944.

Another activist, Akhmet Pogorov, former head of the Ingushetia Interior Ministry and anti-corruption researcher, is on the federal wanted list. In their last video, posted on YouTube, he and Chemurziyev outlined one of the corruption schemes used by the Yevkurov administration. A month later, they found themselves among the “organizers of the riots.”

When people post the names of the protesters arrested in Moscow, they express outrage over the fact that an actor, a “harmless” programmer, and a 26-year-old man with kids could have been singled out by the authorities. When journalists are targeted, they call it an attack on free speech. But is no one outraged by the arrest of a museum curator? Of two old, sick men who could die in remand prison? (Barakhoyev and Masalgov’s chronic illnesses have worsened since they were arrested and jailed.) Is a deliberate crackdown on public figures and civic activists not an attack on political freedoms?

In Moscow, the slogan “Stop feeding the Caucasus!” has been popular. The Ingush told me it would be great if people called for an end to feeding the elites in the Caucasus. They added I should be sure to write that the protests in Magas were not only about land but also about official lawlessness and corruption in the republic. In Moscow, the ostensible trigger for the protests was the disqualification of independent candidates who wanted to stand in elections to the Moscow City Duma, but people actually protested corruption and the endless reign of the current regime. Similarly, in Ingushetia, outrage over the transfer of land to Chechnya mushroomed into an anti-corruption movement.

Corruption in Ingushetia starts at the very top. Everyone knows there that the federal authorities take a five to ten percent kickback from subsidies to the region. The looting continues when the money trickles down to the local authorities. And there is rampant bribery everywhere: people pay bribes to get good marks on school exams, medical care, and jobs.

Here is a typical story, one of hundreds. In 2013, the largest flour mill in Russia was built in Karabulak with five billion rubles from Rosselkhozbank, money referred to as “private investments.” A portrait of Putin was draped on the building, a grand opening was held, and press releases were sent to the national media. The mill was supposed to employ 1,500 people, but since it opened, the mill has only employed security guards. So there the mill stands, a monument to corruption in Russia. A grain farmer I know complained he had to take his crop straight from the field to the distilleries, where he sold it for seven or so rubles a bushel since there was no place to store and process it.

Ingushetia has the highest unemployment rate in Russia, and finding work there is not only difficult but also expensive. They say a posting in the Emergencies Ministry costs 350,000 rubles [approx. 5,000 euros], while a nurse’s job runs you around 50,000 rubles. 64,000 people were on the books as employees of state enterprises, when in fact they did not work for them and did not even know they worked for them. Besides, the population of Ingushetia is only around half a million people.

Ingushetia is one of the five poorest regions in Russia. It suffers from poverty and ruin, lawless security forces and high officials who pilfer the budget with impunity. It was no wonder protesters chanted slogans against corruption, against Yevkurov and his administration, from the outset of the protests. Nor was it any wonder Yevkurov practically issued an order in public when he said the protesters should be put in prison.

One of Yevkurov’s ministers, now an adviser to the new head of the republic, who celebrated the Eid in a most unexpected way—with vodka and women in the courtyard of his own hotel—explained to me why people protested.

“They’re a bunch of crooks who were paid.”

“Who paid them?”

“The west, maybe?” Who else pays people in Russia to protest? Who doesn’t like the fact that Putin has made Russia strong? So they’re the ones who pay.”

Ingushetia is like Moscow, only worse. Yevkurov ordered a crackdown on the protesters because he was sick and tired of anti-corruption slogans and accusations he had looted Ingushetia. And then there is the Kremlin, which sends a signal to the entire country that any opposition movement will face a brutal crackdown. Consequently, thirty-three people await their sentences. And sentenced they will be, not least because, for some inexplicable reason, the Russian public, opposition activists, and foreign correspondents could not care less about them.

All anyone does nowadays is talk about the defendants in the Moscow case, throwing in a few other political prisoners for good measure. People say they did nothing wrong, that the charges against them are trumped-up, that the authorities ordered law enforcement to put them away. But what about the Ingush case? Is it not a frame-up? Did the accused do something wrong?

You often hear that people only defend their own kind: journalists defend other journalists, actors intercede on the behalf of other actors, lecturers at the Higher School of Economics show their solidarity with a student at the Higher School of Economics. The authorities threatened to frame Ingush journalist Rashid Maysigov on drug charges, and then they did it. They also tortured him with electrical shocks to force him to testify. I have not seen a single newspaper with the front-page headline “I Am/We Are Rashid Maysigov.” When it came to Maysigov, journalistic solidarity broke down for some reason. Nor will the folks who adorn their social media account profile pictures with slogans like “I Am Yegor Zhukov,” “I Am Ivan Golunov”  or “I Am Konstantin Kotov” ever write “I Am Zafira Sautiyeva” or “I Am Musa Masalgov.” What is wrong with Sautiyeva and Masalgov? Are they the wrong sort of people? Are they from the wrong ethnic group?

I like the slogan used by the solo picketers outside the presidential administration building in Moscow; “I Am/We Are the Whole Country.” I like the fact that the placards are inscribed with the names of people who are being persecuted right now for protesting peacefully or literally for no reason at all. But the names Sautiyeva, Masalgov, Barakhoyev, Uzhakhov, Nalgiyev, Chemurziyev, Pogorov, Maysigov, Katsiyev, Pliyev, Dzeytov, Dugiyev, Myakiyev, Gagiyev, Vishegurov, Bapkhoyev, Badiyev, Oziyev, Ozdoyev, Oskanov, Dzyazikov, Tomov, Azhigov, Muzhakhoyev, Khamkhoyev, and Aushev are not on these placards.

Are you certain you are the whole country? Have you forgotten anyone?

Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina is a Moscow writer and journalist. Thanks to Jenya Kulakova for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

The Stability Pit, or, Bend Them like Gandhi

Screenshot of a photograph on the website of the Debt Collection Development Center. The photograph was taken during a conference on debt collection. Source: Tsentr razvitiia kollektorstva
Screenshot of a photograph found on the website of the Debt Collection Development Center. The photograph was taken during a conference on debt collection. The man in glasses displayed on the screen is identified as “M. Gandhi.” Source: Tsentr razvitiia kollektorstva

Russia in the Pit of Stability
The state has disclaimed all liability for the country’s future
Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina
Moskovsky Komsomolets
June 22, 2016

The country has been handed the bill for Crimea, Donbass, and “stability.” The bill includes unemployment, poverty, and hopelessness. The petrodollar dolce vita is over. The only things growing now in Russia are prices, taxes, and utility bills, while incomes, purchasing power, and the standard of living are falling. Nineteen million Russians live below the poverty line. Yet the minimum monthly cost of living in Moscow is 14,413 rubles [approx. 200 euros], and 9,452 rubles nationwide, meaning that a huge number of people who are not officially poor are barely making ends meet. Thirty-nine percent of families do not have spare cash; they spend their entire incomes on groceries. The worst thing is that these people cannot afford to buy not only things but also medicines. Almost fifty percent of the population suffers from structural hunger. And that is not is the limit: the crisis is not over yet.

On the other hand, no one in the government has been sacked, there has not been a single bankruptcy on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, and the number of dollar millionaires in Russia has not changed. “We picked the sweet berries together, but the bitter berries I pick alone”?

“Berries Are Sweet,” a song from the film Earthly Love (Yevgeny Matveev, dir., 1974)

The propagandists have, of course, been trying to powder the ugly picture with “poll results” claiming that eighty percent of Russians consider themselves happy, ninety-four percent look to the future with optimism, and eighty-two percent support the president’s policies. Not even the most desperately optimistic patriots believe in this anymore, however. Universal jingoistic boldness has given way to a heavy hangover, and instead of talk about Russia getting up from its knees, you more often hear the saying, “It won’t be worse than the nineties.”

It will be worse. In the nineties, it was only the free hand of the market that suffocated ordinary folk, but now the market will be reinforced by the strong arm of the state. More and more new taxes will be introduced: on property, land, vehicles, securities, and anything that moves. More and more bureaucratic dodges will be devised so the state can get its share, but from everyone and for nothing. There will be more and more new construction projects whose price tags will be doubled or trebled so the “elite” can maintain their prosperity. Phrases like “Crimea tax,” “payment for an extractive economy and decades of incompetent sloth,” and “money for officials and security forces” will be inscribed in invisible ink on each new levy, requisition, and massive construction project.

Sensitive to change, since they have something to lose, and quick off the mark, because they are able to leave, the middle class has quickly realized that hard times are coming. Since the introduction of sanctions, its ranks have thinned: some have been ruined, while others have fled. Even before the crisis, the regime did everything it could to make doing business more or less honestly in Russia unprofitable. Even the sanctions and promises to support domestic producers have changed nothing. Those who steal have it good, those who work have it bad, and the smaller the business, the more it gets fleeced. Due to the government’s anti-western rhetoric, many entrepreneurs who do business with other countries also got scared they would be targeted with everything from travel bans to confiscations of money and property. Hedging their bets, they have taken refuge in the Baltic countries, where it is easy to get a residence permit, as well as in Europe, Asia, and even Latin America. So many economic emigrants have left the country in recent years that we could speak of “economic steamships” bearing them out of the country. Many have purchased citizenships in other countries, and many of those people plan to renounce their Russian citizenships due to the passage of new laws. (The question of whether Russia needs such citizens and whether we should mourn their departure is beyond the scope of the article.)

But what will happen to those people who stay here? Will the nineties seem like a piece of cake to them?

People had no money in the nineties, but neither they did have any debt. Today, around thirty-eight million people have outstanding bank loans. This is fifty-nine percent of the working population, and it excludes people in debt to semi-underground micro lenders. Moreover, eight million people have at least three outstanding loans, and every sixth person has no way to pay back his or her debts. More than half the loans taken out in 2016 were used to pay off outstanding loans. In addition, people raised on the ideology of consumption cannot kick the credit habit even in hard time. Impoverished and unemployed, they mechanically keep on acquiring debt, using the money they have left to buy appliances or a trip to a resort, thus getting bogged down ever deeper in debt. The laws are written in the interests of the banks, and the inaction of the police and the connivance of the authorities favor the debt collectors. Banks get away with things mere mortals could not get away with. Billions are spirited out of the country annually using crooked banking schemes, and these crimes go to trial only in exceptional cases. It is one thing, however, to move capital abroad and not returns millions in loans to the treasury. It is almost a safe thing to do.

It is another matter not to give back a bank 100,000 rubles on time. True, a law regulating the work of debt collectors has finally been passe. As of 2017, absolutely criminal methods of forcing people to pay their debts will be prohibited. The law is quite timely, but you can count on laws only in countries where they are obeyed. Debt collection will thus shift from the legal realm to the semi-legal realm. Instead of official bank employees, debtors will now be getting visits from shaven-headed wise guys who supposedly have no connection to the banks.

By the way, bailiffs have recently been permitted to garnish the bank accounts of debtors. No one could care less whether you need the money for a life-or-death operation or you have a whole house of children to feed. The bank needs the money more than you do. The more the debt burden of the population increases, the more such measures will be adopted to help banks get their money back.

In the nineties, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, utility rates had not yet skyrocketed, and people could put off paying bills for years on end, until better times. There were no methods of debt collection, and besides, the housing and utilities sector had not yet been divvied up among contractors, many of whom are now in the hands of officials and their “subsidiaries,” only minus any government liability.

Nowadays, people who are overdue paying their utility bills for a couple of months are threatened with having their gas, electricity, water, and heating turned off, sued in court (which in Russia is always on the side of the strong), and can legally be evicted from their apartments. The regime, of course, serves the interests of the property management companies by increasing fines and simplifying debt collection procedures. Trying to carve up a meager budget, people wonder whether to pay the utility bills or make their loan payments. They base their decision on whom they fear most: the extortionists from the utility companies or the gangsters from the banks. The water and the power will probably not be turned off nationwide, but targeted outages and evictions will definitely kick off, and the most defenseless will be at risk. In my landing, a pensioner living with her sick son has had her electricity shut off, and the widow of a man disabled during WWII has received a “polite” threat from the housing service.

For the time being, Russians are keeping on top of their bills, but according to experts, the numbers of overdue utility bills will skyrocket and grow exponentially. Already sensing the profits to be made, collection services have taken an interest in the matter. (The new law on debt collectors, by the way, does not extend to people in debt to utility companies.) Considering their methods, this is definitely frightening. The website of the Debt Collection Development Center features a special section on extorting utility bill debts that lists such methods of pressuring debtors as special notices in the media and leafletting, participation of debt collection specialists in general tenant meetings, legal threats, and unorthodox options [nestandartnye varianty].* The last point gives me the creeps. What exactly are these unorthodox options? A clothes iron? A soldering gun? Matchsticks under the fingernails?

Another sign of the times that did not exist in the nineties is that no one feels sorry for anybody nowadays. A young family with a child has no way of paying back its foreign currency mortgage? Parents cannot pay for their son’s eduction? People have to sell the TV, car or dacha to pay off the loan used to buy that selfsame TV, car or dacha? You shouldn’t have borrowed money from a bank! You have no money to pay your bills? Sell your flat and buy one you can afford! You cannot pay for medical treatment or pay your university fees? Get a job! There are no jobs? That is your fault!

People have no sympathy for others or sense of solidarity. Nor should we expect protests and rallies in support of these who have gone into debt, even when the whole country ends up in that pit. The police and judicial system insures our government against any disturbances.

In fact, the punitive apparatus (from the police and the courts to bank debt recovery departments) is a single sector in which the state is present in one way or other. But what does the state do for its own people? It squanders state funds, including the pension fund. It cuts spending on everything not associated with the military, abroad and domestically. It has been exiting the social sector, shutting down hospitals, schools, and kindergartens, eliminating further and supplemental educational programs, canceling benefits, and reducing welfare payments that as they were amounted to kopecks. 24,000 schools, 4,800 hospitals, and 4,800 medical clinics were closed in Russia from 2001 to 2013 alone. (There is no data on the Rosstat website after 201. Apparently, it was decided to classify the information.)

The state has disclaimed all liability for the country’s future, but it still costs a lot to its people. In the nineties, the regime attempted to spend the Soviet inheritance, which was so rich that part of it is still left over today. In the noughties, it cashed in on resource extraction.  Today, it has no choice but to shake down its own citizens for money. The entire state vertical, the entire system of power, from the government to the security forces, has focused on this. And since it often has to shake the last kopecks from people’s pockets, the process will be cruel and painful.

Translated by the Russian Reader

* In the interests of fairness, I should mention I could not find this exact wording on the Debt Collection Development Center’s website, although I did find the page where the other methods listed, above, were discussed. TRR